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Stone Castings

Herculaneum, 79 AD


(Back in the 1980s, over three hundred carbonized skeletal remains were discovered submerged along the coastline of Herculaneum, the ancient city that perished during the colossal eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Although most of the victims remain nameless to this day, the excavated ruins have revealed poignant intimations of daily life in a once vibrant and bustling town. ‘Stone Castings’ endeavors to memorialize the final powerful hours of a young girl and her brother as they struggle to comprehend the collapse of their world.)


She had seen her mother again in her dream early in the morning. It had happened a few times already during the last week. She was reaching out to her with hands outstretched as if in a welcoming gesture to a long-lost daughter. She was dressed in the purest white raiment: a clean, flowing ivory stola girdled at the waist and breast with gold bands inlaid with iridescent jewels. In her mind’s ear in the depth of her sleep, she was certain she heard her mother’s voice calling out to her, “Justa, Justa! Don’t worry, only the good die young…” Was it to reassure her that she had safely made the long journey and had passed into the Underworld and was now in the comforting hands of the gods?

Justa woke, dazed and reflective, and recited her morning prayers at the lararium with unusual solemnity as she poured oil into the lantern and filled the offering bowl with grains of salt: Purga mentem, purga corpus, purga animum. Be thou well, Mother Vesta, and may your flames guide and protect us. Ita est! — Your will be done.

There was something strange about the air as she exited the gate with Luca, her little brother, at her side. An acrid, metallic odor seemed to irritate her nostrils like the burnt and carbonized charcoal her father would prepare in a brazier for his drawing sticks. She shrugged it off while Luca skipped ahead, jumping from one stone paver to the next, peering into the empty alleyway lined with clay amphorae and barrels of olives and fermenting fish sauce.

“Will we find him, Justa?” he asked in his small thready voice as he looked up at his sister.

Peculiar things seemed to have occurred during the night, she mused. The neighbor’s rooster had been crowing interminably well into the early dawn hours and then went silent altogether as if its larynx had been strangled. The street dogs were howling in chorus like a pack of wolves, responding to each other’s barking as if in secret code, and then by dawn Mauro, their housedog, had mysteriously run away.

“He’ll be back, Luca. Don’t fret,” she cooed softly, looking meaningfully into the boy’s deep brown eyes, as deep and dark as the rich ashy soil surrounding their own neighboring hilltop of Vesuvio where the ancient gods slept.

Justa reached inside her cloth bag and pulled out a jagged shiny object. Its opalescent surface glinted in the faint morning sunlight. “Keep this stone with you always for good luck,” her mother had said, holding it up to her with a trembling hand just before her passage into the Afterlife. “I found this in the rubble of the last great tremor that shook our village years ago, before even you were born. May you never live through dark hours like I have…”

Justa held the stone up to the light and admired its raw, ancient beauty, wondering at the mystery of this fossilized relic that seemed to freeze and compress the flow of time in the palm of her hand for all eternity. In a flash, the gem suddenly lost its luster and faded under the shadow of a cloud that now passed overhead.

It was already past the second hour; the sun had been up for nearly two hours. There was much to be done before tomorrow’s Festival of Opalia in honor of the harvest goddess. They had to be off to the fuller’s to pick up her newly laundered white tunic. Father will be so proud to see me assisting in the temple proceedings, she beamed to herself.

“Luca!” she called. The boy had disappeared into a corner street and was urinating in a municipal latrine. Soon, she observed, the fuller’s slaves would be coming around to empty the troughs and collect the yellowish liquid reeking of ammonia for their washrooms to bleach and whiten the city’s linens.

“Look!” Luca cried, pointing up at the sky.

Justa’s gaze was transfixed by a massive plume of darkness bulging outwards and ballooning upwards to a staggering, unfathomable height, higher than she thought possible. She felt her neck twisting and craning to comprehend the enormity of the colossal spectacle that was unfolding above them. The umbrella-like cloud was expanding from above the nearby mountain crag and appeared to puff outwards and uncoil itself southwards towards their neighboring city. She thought of their father who was still in Pompeii finishing up his painting commission at a patron’s villa.

“Papa should be home by tomorrow,” Justa smiled at the boy. “He’ll be safe until then.”

Inwardly, she wondered why the atmosphere was so eerily silent, why they heard no sounds from the looming mountain crag. If there was any discord within, she hoped the gods would quell any disturbance. At most, she thought, they would be sure to expect a cooling summer rainfall by day’s end.

She took Luca by the hand and led him down towards the main avenue and into a side street past the Decumanus Maximus and up a narrow alleyway. “We have to stop by the tutor’s house and register you for school, young man. I promised Papa. You will be attending the Ludus like all boys your age. Will you be sure to teach me everything you learn, Luca?”

Her brother was unresponsive and stood frozen in his tracks. Justa had to admit to herself that her stoic charade was not working anymore. Little Luca sensed something was clearly wrong and stifled a howl.

The second story that housed the schoolmaster’s domicile was empty. Dense, coal-like darkness was swiftly engulfing them. And now, Justa felt the paving stones lurching ever so slightly underneath her sandals. There was a faint crackling in the air like the gentle flakes of falling snow touching the earth in an early autumn caress. Holding back a rising sense of panic, she raced to retrace her steps with her brother in tow. She could hear a surging commotion in the distance. Looking up, she noticed people clamoring onto their roofs to get a closer look at the billowing black-stained canopy that enveloped their sister city to the south.

Justa lost all track of time in the ensuing mayhem. Hours seemed to scuttle away like the crows that were now flying helter-skelter in every direction. Two, three of the birds dove towards them and then ricocheted back upwards, each unable to gauge height or depth. She felt her heart pounding. Crows were always a bad omen, her mother had said.

The rain of ash flakes intensified until the patter became a drumming noise and the deafening percussive clatter brought a barrage of frothy pumice stones raining down upon their heads. Brother and sister were stopped at the Decumanus as a mule-drawn litter sped in the opposite direction. Justa recognized the stricken face of her father’s benefactress.

“Leave the city!” Ermina called from within. “Get out now. Come inside, there’s room for you both. I am heading north—” She ducked her head back inside the cart to deflect a falling fusillade of ash. “Here, cover yourself!” she shouted, tossing a heavy bolster through the window.

“We are waiting for Father—” Justa called, but by then the cart had already sped away with maniacal fury.

She thought with a fleeting wave of nostalgia of the rare evenings in the elegant triclinium surrounded by her father’s exquisite wall frescoes as she sat entranced at the elderly woman’s feet and listened for hours as Ermina deftly plucked at her antique lyre-shaped kithara. Justa remembered how she would fall into a trance-like reverie and merge with the melting tones that seemed to resonate from somewhere deep in the instrument’s hollow wooden cavity, carrying her into unseen worlds of magical sound. Come back to us soon, Lady Ermina, she prayed.

There was now pandemonium on the streets. She noticed her neighbors running past with heavy cushions tied to their heads and shoulders to deflect the bombardment of stones. “We are heading towards the Boathouse!” one of them shouted through the din. “It’s safe there. There will be ships coming to rescue us!”

A rescue? Justa pondered. Surely it hasn’t come to that, has it? A clay roof tile came crashing down near her feet. Why am I in such a fog? she wondered. Had her dream so anesthetized her? The world was collapsing about her on all sides, and she was as deadened and numbed as a lifeless statue.

“Justa, Justa!” mewled her brother, tugging at her skirt. “Let’s go, please!” The boy’s high-pitched piping jostled her to her senses until she grasped the urgency of the moment. In a burst of energy, she scooped him up and ran, madly joining and blending in with the mass of humanity swelling out over the main thoroughfare towards the coastline while the burgeoning cloud of volcanic detritus unfurled before them like charcoal ink stains on thickened blotting paper.

She found herself running through the open gates of a villa abandoned by its owner in his haste to evacuate the city, past the open sleeping chambers, beyond the backroom kitchens and private bath. In an eastern alcove of the stately residence she found a modest lararium tucked away in a corner where a tiny oil lamp was burning, casting glimmering shadows on a small bronze statuette. Divine Salus! Justa rasped breathlessly, Guide us all to things joyous and fortunate. Ita est! — So be it.

There was no way now to calculate the hour through the opaque blackness of the murky atmosphere; she guessed it was well past the sixth hour of evenfall, midnight at least, and wondered how they could have traipsed the streets with such aimless confusion. The roof of their lodging had already collapsed from the weight of the avalanche of rocks and there was now no going home.

She dragged the exhausted child down past the Marine Gate and onto the shorefront where people were scurrying about, blindly feeling their way with outstretched hands in the chaos. When they descended onto the shore they spotted the forms of several men and one or two soldiers waving flickering torches at the newcomers. “Get inside!” one of the men yelled at Justa, motioning towards the direction of the caves.

It was pitch black inside the vaulted cavern. Justa could hear muffled coughing and the desperate clearing of parched throats. They were tripping over the forms crowding the dirt floor. One of them, an old woman, was crouched into a hump, hawking up spittle and phlegm. “Gods have mercy upon us!” she was moaning, rocking herself back and forth rhythmically as if the motion would bring some sense of repetitive calm into the impending madness.

Justa clutched her brother’s hand and, after inching her way towards a corner of the stone wall, huddled against the cool rock for safety. She felt a strange, bristled wetness on the sole of her foot and then, before they knew what had descended upon them, a familiar sound of snuffled barks was filling their cramped space.

“Mauro!” Luca cried, stroking the muzzle of his beloved pet. If the dog had somehow sensed sanctuary in this remote crypt, then surely we, too, will have a safe haven here, Justa thought trustingly.

The soft whimpering and choked sobs began to die down. Best to preserve one’s breath, Justa reasoned. The air—what’s left of it—is so brittle and acerbic, like stale, caustic vinegar scorching her throat.

Oh, for a cool draught of fresh spring water! she thought longingly, remembering the balmy evenings the family would spend on the veranda watching the golden sunsets over their city—the very birthplace of mighty Hercules of fabled times—sipping sweetened cherry water and pointing out the skiffs coming and going along the bay.

A profound silence now blanketed the refugees clustered together in a tight thrashing knot of anguished uncertainty. Outside, a powerful gust of wind extinguished the few torches illuminating the chaotic scene. The hailstorm of rocks suddenly ceased, augmenting an ominous stillness like the rush of dead air into a sealed vacuum.

Far out into the distant waters, Justa felt a wave of unearthly sound rushing towards the beach at what seemed like an unimaginable speed. The walls were now becoming warmer, progressively hotter to the touch. She pulled away, reached into the fold of her pouch to cradle her mother’s keepsake gemstone, and hoped wistfully for daybreak.


Bio: Author of the critically applauded debut novel Twelfth House, E.C. Traganas has published in The San Antonio Review, Ibbetson Street Press, The Penwood Review, Agape Review, Ancient Paths, The Chamber Magazine, Dark Winter Literary, and numerous other journals. Hailed as ‘an artfully created masterpiece’ and a ‘must-read’, her new work of short poetry, Shaded Pergola, was recently released by Tropaeum Press and features her original illustrations. A resident of New York City, Ms. Traganas enjoys a varied career as a Juilliard-trained concert pianist & composer, activities that have earned her accolades from the international press.




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